16 Mar An Obama-Trudeau Agreement Conceding Canada’s Claim to the Waters of the Northwest Passage?
[Craig H. Allen is the Judson Falknor Professor of Law at the University of Washington, where he directs the university’s Arctic Law and Policy Institute.]
In a March 10, 2016, op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Canadian professor Michael Byers (along with U.S. co-author Scott Borgerson), reprises an earlier suggestion aimed at bringing legitimacy to Canada’s claim of sovereignty over the waters of the Northwest Passage through a bilateral agreement between Canada and the United States. The article, titled The Arctic Front in the Battle to Contain Russia, leads with a photograph of Russian President Vladimir Putin and closes with the warning that the United States and Canada must reach agreement on the status of the waters “before it is too late,” because “there is little to stop an increasingly assertive Russia from sending a warship through” the passage. To Professor Byer’s disappointment, the suggestion is unlikely to attract any support in Washington, D.C.
The “Northwest Passage” refers to the sea route that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans across the top of North America, via waterways through the islands lying between Canada’s northern continental coastline and the Arctic Ocean (displayed in red below). The Canadian government asserts that the Northwest Passage is part of Canada’s internal waters, and subject to the nation’s full sovereignty. In fact, in 2009 the Canadian Parliament renamed the waterways the “Canadian Northwest Passage.” Under Canada’s view, no other nation has the right to navigate in or fly over those waters unless Canada consents.
[Image courtesy of geology.com]
Canada’s Claim: In contrast to the conflicting maritime claims in the South China Sea, there is no dispute regarding Canada’s sovereignty over the principal islands along the Northwest Passage (the only exception is Hans Island, a tiny uninhabited knoll in upper Baffin Bay near Greenland, which is claimed by both Canada and Denmark). The dispute concerns the status of some of the waterways surrounding the Canadian islands, and whether other nations enjoy navigation rights in those waters. Over the years, Canadian officials and commentators have relied on a variety of theories to support Canada’s claim that the waters of the Northwest Passage are internal waters. They include a claim to historic title over the waters, announced in 1973; a claim based on straight baselines, first established in 1986 (soon after the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Sea transited the passage); and occupation of the covering ice by Canada’s Inuit people “from time immemorial.”
In a paper prepared by Canada’s Library of Parliament, the Canadian government author cited Donat Pharand, whom the Library’s author describes as “perhaps the most authoritative Canadian legal expert on the question,” for the conclusion that Canada’s historical title argument is weak. By contrast, the author continues, Pharand concluded that the claim based on straight baselines around the offshore islands (a move that Pharand himself advocated in a 1984 article) is Canada’s “best” claim, and “strong enough” in international law. Other states disagree. The United States protested Canada’s claim to straight baselines in the Arctic immediately after the claim was to go into effect on January 1, 1986 (U.S. Department of State, Limits in the Seas: United States Responses to Excessive Maritime Claims, No. 112). That same year, the member-states of what was then the European Community similarly protested that they could not “acknowledge the legality” of Canada’s straight baseline claim (Id.).
In his most recent attempt to provide a legal basis for Canada’s claim to the waters of the Northwest Passage, Byers sidesteps weaknesses in Canada’s claims under existing international law, and advocates instead that President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau negotiate a bilateral agreement by which the United States would acquiesce in Canada’s claims, in order to address the two nations’ “shared vulnerability to naval vessels from Russia and other unfriendly nations.”
Byers’ use of a Russian threat to encourage U.S. acquiescence is curious, given his recent statements elsewhere that dismiss, as “hypothetical,” security concerns about Russia raised by others. For example, in a late February 2016 interview by Radio Canada International, Professor Byers argued that Russia has “shown no sign of any inclination towards aggression in the Arctic”; a far cry from the “battle front” posed by an “increasingly assertive Russia” characterization he now offers to spook the U.S. into an agreement.
The Consistent U.S. Position: Recent White House statements make clear that the United States is not going to acquiesce in Canada’s claims to sovereignty over the waters of the Northwest Passage. As reaffirmed in the 2009 U.S. Arctic Region Policy presidential directive, the United States’ position vis-à-vis the status of the Northwest Passage has been clear:
Freedom of the seas is a top national priority. The Northwest Passage is a strait used for international navigation…; the regime of transit passage applies to passage through those straits. Preserving the rights and duties relating to navigation and overflight in the Arctic region supports our ability to exercise these rights throughout the world, including through strategic straits.
Far from signaling a willingness to retreat from its objection to Canada’s excessive maritime claims in the Arctic, U.S. objections to the claims were recently reiterated. Just last week, the Obama White House expressed what might be seen as impatience with excessive maritime claims in the Arctic. In the March 2016 Implementation Framework for the National Strategy for the Arctic Region, the Obama Administration laid out a plan to “promote international law and the freedom of the seas” in the Arctic. The Framework asserts that in the Arctic “the United States will exercise internationally recognized navigation and overflight rights, including transit passage through international straits, innocent passage through territorial seas, and conduct routine operations on, over, and under foreign exclusive economic zones, as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention” (emphasis added). The Obama Framework goes on to pledge specific steps in the coming years that will include conducting routine Arctic maritime exercises, operations and transits consistent with international law; documenting related U.S. diplomatic communications and Department of Defense freedom of navigation operations; and delivering strategic communications at appropriate opportunities “to reflect U.S. objections to unlawful restrictions in the Arctic on the rights, freedoms, and uses of the sea and airspace recognized under international law; and to promote the global mobility of vessels and aircraft throughout the Arctic region consistent with international law.”
It should also be noted that the kind of bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Canada Byers advocates would have no effect the legal status of the waters under UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). As a party to UNCLOS, Canada is strictly limited by Article 311 of the Convention in the extent to which it can attempt to alter the effect of UNCLOS by bilateral treaties. Any attempt to do so would have no effect on the navigation rights of Russia, the EU member-states, or any other state. Moreover, any such bilateral agreement would likely be viewed by the other coastal state members of the Arctic Council as inconsistent with the spirit of the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration, in which both Canada and the United States agreed that the “law of the sea,” not bilateral side agreements, provides the relevant rules regarding freedom of navigation in the Arctic.
Ironically, in arguing that a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Canada is needed to bring legitimacy to Canada’s Northwest Passage claims and provide a legal basis for preventing Russia from sending warships through the passage, Professor Byers has implicitly acknowledged the weakness in Canada’s claim absent such an agreement, while at the same time undermining his otherwise consistent position that Russia poses no threat to security in the Arctic.